Sunday, May 02, 2010

Raising the Roof

A map depicting some of the tunnel work supporting Norfolk Southern's improved container rail route from Virginia to Ohio. 28 tunnels in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky are being enlarged to accommodate "double stack" container cars travelling between Norfolk and Columbus, Ohio (Virginian-Pilot graphic).

These days, when you hear about a rail project, it's (typically) a municipal light rail line--the kind that never lives up to ridership expectations, and requires millions in taxpayer subsidies to remain solvent.

One of the nation's newest light rail systems (in Norfolk, Virginia) won't start operations until next year, but it's already in financial trouble. Last December, city council members learned that completing the project will require another $40 million. In January, the city council forced out Michael Townes, the director of Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), which will operate the rail line. Council members blamed Mr. Townes for the project's massive cost overruns; he retaliated by claiming that "racism" was behind his forced retirement.

In case you're wondering, Norfolk's light rail system, nicknamed "The Tide," will consist of a 7.4 mile route between the Eastern Virginia Medical School and Newtown Road. Supporters believe the system will attract up to 11,000 riders a day and point out that, even with cost overruns, it's less expensive (at $44 million a mile) that similar light rail lines in Charlotte and Portland, Oregon.

Meanwhile, there's another rail project underway in Hampton Roads, not far from where tracks for "The Tide" are being embedded in city streets. But the other project extends far beyond Norfolk. When completed, it will provide an improved route for container rail traffic between local ports and cargo facilities in the Midwest.

It's called the "Heartland Corridor," and involves multiple projects, from the relocation of rail lines in the Norfolk area, to the construction of a new, intermodal cargo facility in Columbus, Ohio. But the effort's centerpiece is the enlargement of 28 existing railway tunnels in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. Robert McCabe of the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot describes some of the challenges facing the tunnel expansion:

Floodlights glared deep in a century-old tunnel under an Appalachian hillside. An excavator poked at the arched ceiling like a pterodactyl.

Chunks of sandstone shattered and fell thunderously into an empty rail car.

Work has gone on like this for nearly a year. Crews begin at 2 a.m. and call it a day about noon.


Their task: to carve a higher clearance in the ceiling of the tunnel, making it big enough to handle rail cars loaded with cargo containers stacked two-high, doubling the railroad’s capacity and giving shippers more bang for their buck.

It is one of 28 tunnels that form the centerpiece of what Norfolk Southern calls “the Heartland Corridor,” a sort of Northwest Passage for double-stack rail traffic between Hampton Roads and the Midwest that will shave 230 miles and about a day of transit time from existing routes.


Each of the tunnels – 23 of them in West Virginia, four in Virginia and one in Kentucky – has presented a unique puzzle, a slightly different configuration of rock and soil.

“I’ve learned something almost every day,” said [Project Director Bob] Billingsley, who after spending most of his career working with steel, including a stint overseeing structures at Norfolk Southern’s Pier 6 coal-loading facility, suddenly found himself a student of mineralogy and geology.

The tunnels, built around 1905, have stood at 19.5 feet from track to ceiling. They need to be an average of 1.5 feet taller, including a 9-inch cushion, to accommodate the double-stack trains.

Norfolk Southern's daily operations made the work even more difficult. To accomodate freight and coal traffic, the route had to remain open during the construction project. That's why most of the work was done during the wee hours of the morning, giving crews enough time to work on the tunnels--and clear the tracks--before the trains began running again.

It's Norfolk Southern's biggest engineering project in more than 100 years, and one of the largest in modern railroad history. Federal and state governments have contributed about $180 million towards the project. Private investors, including the railroad, are paying the rest.

Despite the engineering obstacles, the Heartland Corridor project is on schedule and (apparently) within budget. The first train carrying double-stacked containers will roll down the line in September.

Total cost for the Heartland Project? About $313 million, roughly the same price being paid for that light rail line in Norfolk. It may be an apples-and-oranges comparison, but it doesn't take a financial analyst to see which project will deliver more value for the taxpayer's buck.

ADDENDUM: As the Pilot article explains, the Heartland project really comes down to cost (and convenience) for shippers. It's actually about $500 cheaper to ship a cargo container to an east coast port, instead of a west coast terminal. With the improved rail route (and a planned expansion of the Panama Canal), Norfolk will become a more attractive port for international shippers.

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